King Richard

Posted on November 18, 2021 at 5:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence, strong language, a sexual reference and brief drug references.
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence including a drive-by shooting and assaults
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2021
Date Released to DVD: February 7, 2022

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
The first thing you need to know about “King Richard” is that it was produced by three of the daughters of the title character, Richard Williams, and it is an unabashed love letter to their father. And two of those daughters are tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. Richard Williams has been a controversial character. Unconventional does not begin to cover his approach to his daughters’ careers in tennis and the royal appellation was not intended as a compliment. But no one can argue with the results of the 78-page plan he famously prepared, with step one having two more children so he could start from the beginning. “King Richard” is the story of the Williams sisters’ early years, first when they are little girls in Compton, California and then a few years later when they are being coached at a large facility in Palm Beach, Florida, ending as Venus competes at age 14 in her first professional tournament.

Will Smith plays Richard Williams, and as he did in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” playing another real-life devoted and determined father, he gives a complex, layered performance. He makes it clear that Richard’s determination is as much the result of trauma as of ambition, as much the result of frustration and resentment over the opportunities he did not have as of his commitment to making sure his daughters had opportunities, especially opportunities no one else thinks are possible.

Actors, like tennis doubles partners, need to be a team, and Aunjanue Ellis as the girls’ mother Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams matches Smith at every turn, just as Oracene was a full partner in parenting and coaching their daughters. Their scenes together show us a deep and sometimes difficult connection, whether she is comforting him as she treats his wounds or confronting him about his failings.

We have all seen a lot of biopics, and they don’t make movies about real-life characters unless they did something big and important. And that is why those films always have some scene where the main character is either being pushed to succeed and another where he or she is being tearfully accused of neglecting an important relationship. This film is unusual because the girls, including their three older sisters (one of whom, Isha Price, also served as a producer of the film) never complain about the training and practices, even in the pouring rain. Richard is supporting them as much as he is leading them. The scenes of the family together, in their tiny Compton home or riding in the family van, are — the only word that applies is joyful. Richard and Oracene are dedicated to excellence in school and in tennis but it is clear that what matters most to them is giving their girls good values and the skills and confidence to achieve whatever they want.

Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are excellent as the younger Venus and Serena, and there are solid supporting performances from everyone else in the cast including the young girls who play the other Williams sisters and the older girls who play Venus and Serena in the later part of the film. Tony Goldwyn as the taciturn Paul Cohen, a coach who agrees to take on Venus but not her younger sister, and Jon Bernthal as the more excitable Rick Macci, who brings the whole family to his training compound and puts Richard on the payroll for a percentage of the girls’ future earnings.

Smith says that seeing the video of Richard Williams protecting then-14-year-old Venus from an intrusive reporter — and the look of pride and relief on her face, the confidence that he would always have her back — had an enormous impact on his notion of what it means to be a parent. It inspired him to be both a protector and a supporter of his children’s ambitions.

Smith does not go for the easy win here. He tones down his endless charm and screen charisma and tendency to charm to let Richard shine through. In his sensitive performance, we see that Richard is damaged and vulnerable. He knows he is dealing with people who are unimaginably more powerful than he is and that they will find his manner and appearance discomfiting. These are people who like being comfortable. He knows he does not have the luxury of getting angry when they open doors he knows his daughters deserve to go through. He is insistent, not confrontational, and always polite, though he knows that holding back is demeaning and unfair. “You’re wrong but I won’t hold that against you,” he smiles, and it is a Richard smile, not a Smith megawatt grin.

Like all champions, he keeps his eye on the ball and he leads with his strengths. He did something even more important and even more difficult than raising “two Mozarts” — he raised daughters who love him enough to want the world to see him the way they do.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, drug references and alcohol, sexual references that are crude and predatory, and some violence, with assaults and a drive-by shooting, and some family conflict.

Family discussion: Would you want to be part of this family? What would be in your 78-page plan?

If you like this, try: “Venus and Serena,” an excellent documentary

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Interview: Maiken Baird and Michelle Major of “Venus and Serena”

Posted on May 9, 2013 at 10:07 pm

“Venus and Serena” is an enthralling new documentary about two of the most acclaimed athletes of our time.  Their story is even more extraordinary because they are sisters.  Venus and Serena Williams have won world trophies and broken records since they were teenagers.  Both have come back from daunting health issues.  I spoke to directors Maiken Baird and Michelle Major about the three years it took to gain the Williams sisters trust and how what they thought would be a documentary about competition became an even bigger story about and even bigger triumph, fighting their way back to the top.

How did you get the Williams sisters and their family to trust you?

MB: It took perseverance and not taking no for an answer.  We just kept pushing.  We began in April of 2007 and it took a good three years.

MM: In ’07 we came together with the idea and began to approach them.  It was countless meetings and hundreds of emails later when they finally agreed.  We started filming in 2011.   

In retrospect, from a dramatic standpoint, that was perfect timing.  You could not have anticipated a more tumultuous year. venus and serena

MB: It was not a great year for them.  From the point of view of the movie, we were extraordinarily lucky.  Serena had a near death experience, a pulmonary embolism.  She couldn’t walk.  We didn’t know if she would ever play tennis again.  And Venus had an auto-immune disease we discovered during filming.  It was a remarkable comeback story from a really bad place.

MM: We were planning on following tennis players playing tennis.  We didn’t know what was going to become of the film, what it was going to be.  We thought we would be on tennis courts and we found ourselves in medical facilities.

One of the most striking moments in the film is archival footage of the girls’ father interrupting a reporter, very upset at the questions he is asking Venus when she was a young teenager. Did he try to control your story?

MM: Venus actually saw the film after we completed it and she said, “I wish you had left more of that interview in the film so everyone could see that the reporter was badgering me.  I was happy that my father came to my defense.”  Richard loves them fiercely and is very protective of them.  But now they’re older and can do what they want.  He’s a live wire.  Sometimes he left us alone and sometimes he wanted us to go away, as you see in the film.

What will be most surprising to people who see this film?

MM: One of the most surprising moments for me was when Serena was on the treadmill after the third round of the U.S. Open.  She felt even though she didn’t drop a set that she had played really poorly — which I didn’t even understand.  And she was incredibly frustrated with her hitting partner and felt that he wasn’t training her hard enough for the match.  It’s like everybody dropped away.  The cameras weren’t there for her.  It was just the two of them and she was going to let him have it.  The most important thing to her was winning the tournament and playing excellent tennis.  She really ripped into him very honestly.  And her honesty in that moment, how in the zone she was, that was remarkable.

She wanted him to to be better to make her better.  That’s what it takes to be a champion.

MM: Absolutely.

You had some surprising fans in the film.  How did you get Bill Clinton?

MB: I pursued him for about a year.  He was President when Venus won her first Open, when she was 19.  He called to congratulate her and she told him that his motorcade made her late to her match!  And that he should lower the taxes in Florida.

Were they born to be champions or was it their father, who coached them continuously from the time they were preschoolers?

MM: In every situation, nature and nurture are always combined.  It helps that they are tall.  And in the film Serena even says that she has natural muscles and does not want to lift weights to make them bigger.  But we witnessed how hard they work to stay in top physical condition and hit for hours, take their lunch on the court, and keep hitting, the most unpleasant workout you can imagine, every single day.  Richard devised incredibly clever training methods, using the techniques of football players and basketball players, boxers, male athletes, techniques that had not been used for tennis players.  And their mother instilled in both of them this incredible strength of character and determination never to let anyone get you down.  So I would say more nurture than nature.

Do you think they are held to a different standard in arguing with the line judges than the men?

MB: Yes.  I love the scene when John MacEnroe tells Serena to apologize.  She has looked up to him her whole life and thinks that if he can do it, she can do it.

MM: She definitely gets into the zone.  You’re so in the moment that you’re going to go off every once in a while.  It happens to many players.  But she is tough-looking, imposing, African-American, and so her particular style of yelling receives a certain kind of pushback from the world, and it’s not equal.

What do you want people to get from this movie?

MM: We started out with the idea that this story would be inspirational.  It’s the American story — triumph over adversity of every single kind — it’s about how to maintain a close loving relationship with your sibling even if you have the ultimate rivalry.  There’s nothing you can’t do or accomplish if you set your mind to it and if you have the support of the people around you.

 

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